- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 8, 2003

Anticipation over whether President Bush will send thousands of American peacekeeping troops into Liberia has stirred debate among military analysts over what such a mission would mean.

With some 150,000 U.S. troops in Iraq and at least another 10,000 engaged in Afghanistan, some former military personnel have begun to wave the flag of caution.

Missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, coupled with smaller troop deployments to Colombia, Kosovo, the Philippines and Uzbekistan, have the military spread too thin to be intervening in a civil war in Africa, one analyst says.

“The needle is starting to point on empty in the military gas tank,” said retired Special Forces Maj. F. Andy Messing. “We’re running out of spare parts [and] we’re running out of air capability.”

“At some point,” Maj. Messing said, “somebody has to tell the president: Look, we just can’t do this anymore without doing it badly or without endangering our soldiers or without risking a major political military failure.

“Iraq is leading us in that direction. Right now, we don’t have enough soldiers in Iraq.”

Retired Army Gen. William C. Moore said more troops may be needed in Iraq to relieve those already there. Some, including elements of the Army’s 3rd Infantry Division, have been deployed for nearly eight months.

But Gen. Moore said the United States is capable of dealing with such demands, and he would support the idea of sending troops to Liberia as part of an effort orchestrated by the United Nations.

With U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan urging Mr. Bush to deploy an American force in Liberia, Gen. Moore suggested the United States may earn significant geopolitical capital by going along with the plan, particularly as a way to mend the internal U.N. rift over the Iraq war.

“I think you can rationalize the mission from a geopolitical perspective and possibly a national security perspective,” he said, adding that “before the president commits, there has to be some strong United Nations Security Council action.”

West African leaders have called for a 2,000-strong American force to lead a largely African force in intervening in Liberia. The Pentagon has been training African troops for peacekeeping, and forces from Ghana and Senegal are expected to play a major role.

Arriving yesterday in Senegal at the start of a weeklong tour of five African nations, Mr. Bush said little to suggest he was any closer to making a decision about Liberia. During a brief speech delivered at Goree Island, a historical slave port on the western tip of Africa, Mr. Bush said: “Against the waste and violence of civil war, we will stand together for peace.”

About 500 miles to the south of where the president spoke, a 32-member team of U.S. military specialists was arriving in the Liberian capital of Monrovia to begin a humanitarian assessment in preparation for any troop deployment.

Mr. Bush demanded last week that Liberian President Charles Taylor step down before the United States sent any more troops. Mr. Taylor, who was indicted June 4 for backing rebels in a 10-year terror campaign for Sierra Leone’s diamond fields, also had been accused of participating in several other West African conflicts.

On Sunday, Mr. Taylor said he would step down and accept an offer of asylum in Nigeria, but did not say when. Yesterday, as members of the small U.S. military team traversed Monrovia en route to a refugee camp on the capital city’s outskirts, they were turned back by a blockade set up by Liberian government troops loyal to Mr. Taylor.

The civil war in Liberia, a nation founded in 1847 by former American slaves, involves multiple factions and has displaced more than 1 million people. Fighting killed hundreds of trapped civilians in Monrovia last month.

“There has to be a good assessment made of the situation the troops will be entering,” Gen. Moore said. “Is this going to be an intervention, a stabilization or a peacekeeping mission? In my mind, I see it as an intervention.”

Former Army Capt. John Hillen, author of “Blue Helmets,” a book on international peacekeeping, said it is too early to judge whether Mr. Bush should send more troops.

“We need to answer the question,” he said, “[of] what do we as a government or as an international community wish to accomplish here.”

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